Mahabalipuram: The Majestic Rock-Cut Temples of the Pallavas

Getting to know Mahabalipuram. Essentials for your first visit to the rock-cut temples.

Cricket, filter coffee, temples, Kanchipuram silk, Marina Beach, AR Rahman beats. Tamil Nadu needs no introduction. You either love or hate the unique masala-mix of heat, sounds, sights, and smells that comes with each step you take.  Today, ReachingDelphi brings you another unique place not too far from Chennai, the state’s capital. We are in Mahabalipuram, to see the archaeological influence of the Pallava dynasty.

Mahabalipuram is a historic town founded by the Pallava king, Narasimhavarman I. So, come and join me on a trip to explore this ancient town.

reaching delphi, Mahapalipuram
Mahabalipuram - Shore Temple

By the way, some people refer to Mahabalipuram as Mamallapuram. Both names are accepted. Mamallapuram, however, is its old name. King Narasimhavarman I changed it to Mahabalipuram in the 8th Century. 1

Where is Mahabalipuram

Mahabalipuram, is an ancient seaport, located in the Kancheepuram district. Does Kanchipuram silk sound familiar? We will visit the town and temples of Kanchipuram another day, so hold-off on your silk purchases for now. Though located in within the same district, the Mahabalipuram and Kanchipuram townships are not exactly close by to each other. Silly me, I once thought they were and spent a lot of time commuting between the two places.

reaching delphi, Mahapalipuram
Mahabalipuram - An escape plan

UNESCO declared Mahabalipuram a world heritage site. It is one of the most visited tourist destinations in South India.

Getting to Mahabalipuram

Getting to Mahabalipuram is very easy, especially because there are plenty of options today. Mahabalipuram is located just about 60 km away from Chennai city. It will take you approximately ninety minutes to get here by road, depending on traffic and where you are.

You can get to Mahabalipuram by using:
  • State-run buses – This is a quick and affordable travel option. Buses are clean and airconditioned, and there are many pick up and drop off points in Chennai.
  • Pre-paid taxis or Ola/Uber services – This is my preferred way.
  • Train – The nearest station is Chengalpattu (Chingleput), 18km from Mahabalipuram. From here, take a taxi or local bus to the UNESCO site. 
  • Auto-rickshaws – I personally wouldn’t recommend long distance auto-rickshaw rides. The heat and the endless rhythmic-honks from vehicles on wheels are annoying. Having said that, once in Mahabalipuram, please do use one of these auto’s to get around. Your local auto-rickshaw driver can suggest an itinerary for you at a reasonable price.

Where to Stay

Most visitors to Mahabalipuram prefer to spend a night here. There are many types of accommodations to suit any budget. There are several options at Othavadai Street (where I stayed) and at the cross lanes nearby. Look, here is the view from my hotel room. And it looks like this GEC(K)O and I will remain inseparable. (In case you are wondering, GECO is the abbreviation of the project I once worked on.) But for now, I hope that boy doesn’t fall off the balcony while admiring the GEC(K)O too. ‘Hey Thambi’, I call out …….

reaching delphi, Mahapalipuram
A GEC(K)O at reach

Where to Eat

Don’t worry about getting freshly prepared meals - there are plenty of restaurants serving local hot meals all day long.  Local meals are inexpensive, and most food is vegetarian.

We start our day with some yummy hot thosai and local filter coffee to complete the breakfast.

Start with a thosai

Coffee in Mahabalipuram

There is always a spot for coffee in ReachingDelphi.

Coffee, or kaapi as the locals call it, is a must for almost everyone in Tamil Nadu. Coffee has grown here since 1600 and has been a cultural icon ever since. It was first brought to India from Yemen by a person named Baba Budan. The coffee plantations, however, are not located in the Kanchipuram district. In Tamil Nadu coffee plantations are in the Nilgiris District, Yercaud and Kodaikanal.

reaching delphi, Mahapalipuram
Mahabalipuram coffee

The coffee in the picture above is a medium roast, served hot in stainless steel tumblers.

Places to visit in Mahabalipuram

This historic seaport town was built in the 7th century by the Pallavas, a South Indian dynasty that ruled a portion of South India between 275 CE to 897 CE.3  The Pallavas played an essential role in the transition from rock-cut architecture to stone temples.

We can see many temples with rock-cut architecture in Mahabalipuram. Rock-cut temples are temples that are sculptured by excavating natural solid rock. In structures such as these, the temples were hollowed out of mountains or of hardstone, and the roof is built first. 2

reaching delphi, Mahapalipuram
Mahabalipuram - Carvings on stone

There are approximately forty temples in this area. The most common ones visited are located within a four-kilometre radius. The best way to explore these temples is by local auto-rickshaw.  It will take you approximately half a day to explore the significant temples I have listed below. 

1.       Shore Temple
This is a majestic temple built in the 8th century and overlooks the Bay of Bengal. The temple consists of two towers that appear like a two-stepped roof-storey from a distance. The walls of the temple are lined with sculptures of bull nandis. In his book, Hindu India, Henri Stierlin stated that 'although eroded by salt spray, the shore building structure is regarded as one of the great successes of art that have attained maturity’. 2

reaching delphi, Mahapalipuram
Mahabalipuram - Nandi bull

All around the temple, you will see beautiful stone carvings that tell a story. This is a historic site where having a guide would be useful to understand and interpret these stories from the past.

There is a fair bit of walking to do here, and there is no shade in between. It is best to get here early in the morning to avoid the crowds or in the late evenings to catch a glimpse of the sunset. The gardens in this area are well kept, and the landscape is very soothing.

reaching delphi, Mahapalipuram
Mahabalipuram - Around the Shore Temple

Our guide also noted that the 2004 tsunami that battered the Indian Ocean coast unearthed priceless relics of the Pallavas in places nearby. The Shore temple survived the tsunami because it was built on the bed-rock.

reaching delphi, Mahapalipuram
Whats next? I am looking through the plan

2.       Pancha (Five) Rathas 

This is an archaeological area where you will see five monolithic structures (called rathas) next to each other. These too date back to the 7th century and were crafted out of pink granite. 2

reaching delphi, Mahapalipuram
Snap shot of the Pancha Rathas

The compositions are called rathas because they resemble chariots. They are not called temples as they were not consecrated following the death of Narasimhavarman. 5

reaching delphi, Mahapalipuram
The Rathas

  • Draupadi Ratha – A monolithic temple dedicated to Draupadi and the smallest of the five rathas
  • Arjuna Ratha – A simple structure that resembles a small palace or pavilion
  • Bhima Ratha – Looks like a Buddhist Chaitya and still remains unfinished

reaching delphi, Mahapalipuram
Bhima Ratha

  • Dharmaaraja Ratha – The biggest and tallest of the five rathas
  • Nakula Sahadeva Ratha – Has a straightforward layout with an elephant sculpture standing next to it, which experts say is a rather unusual placement6

reaching delphi, Mahapalipuram
Nakula Sahadeva Ratha

I met a French architect who spends her vacation time sketching pictures of ancient structures such as these beautiful rathas. See for yourself, her drawing is as exquisite as the carvings on these ancient rocks. Just like she has, may the peace we are searching for show for itself in the passion we have and the work we do. 

reaching delphi, Mahapalipuram
A hobby

3.       Mamallapuram Lighthouse
This is the tallest structure in Mahabalipuram. This lighthouse became fully functional in 1904.

I climbed several steps to get here, but the path was well paved and smooth to walk on. The view from the top is beautiful, but I didn’t get to go up all the way, unfortunately.

reaching delphi, Mahapalipuram
Mamallapuram lighthouse

There is a small fee (RPS10) to go up the lighthouse. A word of caution: the person in charge didn’t have enough change for the note I had, which made me disappointed. As usual, I was early and the only one there, so there was no one to ask for some change.  Do remember to bring small change for this entrance fee.

4.       Mahishasuramardini Mandapa
This is a cave temple with magnificent carvings. It is located on the way up to the lighthouse and  was also built in the 7th century.

reaching delphi, Mahapalipuram
Mahishasuramardini Mandapa

5.       Iswara Temple
This is a temple structure built on top of the Mahishasuramardini Mandapa. You’d have to climb a few steps to get to the top for another breathtaking view.

reaching delphi, Mahapalipuram
Iswara Temple

6.       Unfinished Rock-Cut temple North of Krishna Mandapa
This temple is also known as the Pancha Pandava Mandapa. Had it been completed, this would have become the largest of the cave temples here. The carvings around the temple are very intricate, and the structure itself is rather imposing.

reaching delphi, Mahapalipuram
Uma @ Pancha Pandava Mandapa

Look, a family of stone-structure monkeys beside the Pancha Pandava Mandapa.

reaching delphi, Mahapalipuram
At Pancha Pandava Mandapa

Here are some ReachingDelphi-Uma-essentials I have put together for your trip to Mahabalipuram:

1.       Early start.
Mahabalipuram is in southern India. The daytime climate here is warm. My suggestion is that you arrive in Mahabalipuram early. If time is not an issue, why not spend the night before here? This will also give you an opportunity to shop leisurely for some local handicrafts.

2.       Stay safe.
There are plenty of accommodation choices. I noticed some low budget hotels are just as safe, clean and comfortable as the high-end hotels. Still, do some research and choose wisely.

reaching delphi, Mahapalipuram
Othavadai Street 

3.       Beach hotels.
The beaches, in general, are lovely. I’d never like to say no to an opportunity to see a gorgeous sunset over the Bay of Bengal. But, staying at the beach hotels in Mahabalipuram just for this reason can be a drain on the wallet. If budget is a concern, then stay at the town centre.

4.       Take in lots of fluid.
It gets hot as the day progresses. Drink lots of fluid. Did you know that coconut water is a favourite drink in India? You will find plenty of this tasty juice in Mahabalipuram. 

reaching delphi, Mahapalipuram
Coconut drink (my auto rickshaw driver (in brown) is also here)

If you get hungry, try some freshly cut young cucumber. Sprinkle some hot or sour masala mix over it. This vegetable also helps replenish lost fluids in the body.

reaching delphi, Mahapalipuram
Refreshing cucumber and masala mix

5.       Basic rules for fun in the sun.
Wear some shades, keep some sunblock handy and have a hat available - always.

6.       Try an auto rickshaw.
I am sure you are a perfect athlete and would like to explore the temples on foot. Trust me, after a few steps in the heat, you’ll want something that requires less effort. Why not hire an auto-rickshaw driver right from the start? Make sure to negotiate with your driver for a good rate for a couple of hours.

reaching delphi, Mahapalipuram
An auto rickshaw

7.       Try local food. Drink local filtered coffee.
Tell your auto rickshaw driver you want some tasty filtered coffee, and he will take you to the best coffee shop in town. Don’t forget to get your driver a cuppa too. While there, try some delicious freshly steamed idlies or hot thosais.

reaching delphi, Mahapalipuram
Local Indian filter coffee

8.       Participate in local festivals.
In India, no one is a stranger, so join in the crowd. Here is a picture from the Ganesha Chaturthi festival. After prayers to celebrate Ganesha’s birthday, everyone was invited to some mouth-watering prasatham (food offered after prayers).

reaching delphi, Mahapalipuram
Ganesha Chaturthi 

9.       Entrance fees.
Visitors must have a valid ticket to enter most of the historic sites. Carry sufficient rupees on you.

10.   Get a local guide
Getting a local guide to provide an in-depth explanation of the temples will be useful, especially if you want grander experience than just taking stills. English-speaking guides are available at the temple entrances.

11.   Water activity
Mahabalipuram is not just all about the rock-cut temples. It seems water activity is also popular here. Though I haven't tried this myself, I saw three local boys body surfing. I didn’t have the right lenses at the time, but I managed to capture pictures of them from a distance. Please be careful when engaging in any water sport.

reaching delphi, Mahapalipuram
Water activities in Bay of Bengal

12.   Shopping and local stone carving
Support the local industries. There are several trendy yet unique hand-made items you could pick souvenirs to remind you of your trip. A Mahabalipuram stone carving is always a good choice. I have one too.

(2) Hindu Today  (Taschen) – Henri Stierlin

Changing Seasons, Changing Winds : Czech Republic --> Botič to Vltava.

Changing Seasons, Changing Winds : Czech Republic -->  Botič to Vltava.

If you like nature, then this article is for you. How shall we explore the changing landscapes through the seasons? Are we driving? Or perhaps on roller skates? I will say, ‘Close, but no’.

We are in the suburbs of Prague with another good friend, Stanislav Kostka, who tells me the preferred way to explore his backyard is by cycle. Stanislav goes on these exploration tours frequently. I got a tad curious. Does he go on these excursions to get a glimpse of a Beskydy bear? He told there are no Beskydy bears because we are not in in the Beskydy forest. Dear me! I need to update my knowledge on bears. Regardless, he agreed to take us on a couple trips nearer to the city, to experience the changing seasons. Lets go.

A colourful path

Do you know where Prague is? The city of Prague is the jewel of the Czech Republic in central Europe.

The Czech Republic is a landlocked country with four neighbours - Austria, Germany, Poland, and Slovakia. Czechia is the country’s official short English name, which was approved in 2016. Czechia is a member of the European Union.1

Some of the people I met in the Prague office, while with the yellow and red logistics company, are today my close friends. They are either from the Czech Republic or its neighbouring countries. I cannot name any friends, in fear I absent-mindedly miss some out.

Here is a simplified map of Czech Republic and its neighbours, extracted from Google images.2

Where are we?

Prague is Czech Republic’s capital, and it is also the historic capital of Bohemia. The famous landmarks in this city include the 9th century roman-gothic styled Prague Castle, the 14th century Charles Bridge, cobbled streets & Old Town Square & Wenceslas Square. Here are a couple of pictures from my visit long, long time ago. Do any you know who the talented performer below is? 

In 2008

Our exploration today, as I mentioned earlier, is far away from these charming historical sites. We are deep in the wildness, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. We are up close and personal with nature and the calmness of our surroundings. 

The day starts with a glorious sunrise. No snow topped roofs today. Just a bit of sun.

Good morning!

Next, we are on a train, heading to Hostivař Forest Park and some of the suburbs in Prague. Along the way, we will see not one but two rivers. Botič, and the Vltava. And as a treat, we also will see a frozen lake. Hop on, enjoy the ride. Tell me if you spot a Beskydy bear (or any bear for that matter).

Off we go
Can you hear that?  I am excited. I cannot wait to see what is waiting at the other end.

I wonder if Stanislav remembered to put on his Sherlock Holmes suit today. He has an unsolved case that is long overdue - the mystery of a red-lipstick-ed coffee cup. A mysterious woman once left this cup behind for him on one of the rides. Were the fingerprints on the Mac and the lingering aroma good leads? 

Hmmm ... 

We arrive at Hostivařská Přehrada. This is a serene forest area located about 50 minutes away by bus/train from where Stanislav stays. We ride our bikes along the Botič.  Sometimes Botič is referred to as a stream because it is not as large as some of the other rivers that flow across the Czech Republic (the Botič’s river basin is just 135km2). The Botič flows northwest and joins the main Czech river, Vltava. Did you know a dam was built in the Botič river?

Hostivařská Přehrada

Now, do you see chips of ice in the river? The water is freezing alright.  See any fishes there? Now hear that… the ice chips bump hastily against each other as the river flows north towards the Vltava.  The chill is biting. I hope you have on warm clothes.

Soon this part of the river, Stanislav tells me, will freeze completely and will be safe for you to glide upon with your ice skates.

Almost frozen. Do you see the stick on the surface?

The Botič river bank is usually busy with city bikers, inline skaters, and parents with kids. Most visitors come here on weekends. Today is a weekday, and no, we are not at work.  Fortunately, there are not many bikers or people to compete with. To be precise, we counted only twelve people, four dogs, and two horse riding patrols.

Get your skates

On our next trip here, the Botič is frozen. Here is where the dam was built in 1960, making it appear like a lake today. Did I mention, no camping is allowed along this stream? Don’t even think about it. Remember those horse patrols we counted earlier? Well, there are more…

Let's glide
Here is another icy portion of the river. I am afraid I misplaced the icy music Stanislav captured. My bad!

While we wait for the icy music...

We are riding a little further, now.  We see the Vltava, the longest river in the Czech Republic. It is also known as the Bohemian Sea. Look here, we have another visitor in addition to the humans, an ondatra. This, as I understand, is an unusual sight here. We must be lucky indeed. Ondatras live in swamps, marshes and wetlands. Folks in the city need to come here to see them.  Ondatras are known as muskrats in the US.

Hello  Ondatra

It’s spring, the frozen winter rivers and lake have melted. It’s getting warm and delightful. First signs of yellow dandelions that tease the trail. Did you notice them? Charming, aren’t they? Now here is the Vltava, now relieved. Flowing blue. Relaxed.

There, this is the cycle that we have used for these trips, complete with a soft bell to pre-warn the clumsy passers-by. Stanislav, get a bigger bell or show us the mirrors – we want to see you. Stanislav likes staying behind the scenes.

I am ready
Daffodils. Yellow and White. Daffodils mark the start of spring. I regard these yellow and while bulbs as nature’s most delicate and graceful flowers. They bloom and bump their happy petals against the wind and sing their hearts out in harmony. However, they do so only in early spring. If you missed this year’s choir performance, you'd have to wait another twelve months to hear them. But today, we have these golden blooms in abundance in this post, so we can see and listen to them throughout the changing seasons.

Gold is the theme

And look, there are more dandelions! Look deep inside these love-me-not petals – it’s more than just weed. These are golden sprinkles in the green carpet. They tell you a story if you care to listen. One day soon, I will tell you why these sunny dandelions lift me up. Trust me it is not the pollen!

Cherry blossoms, another of spring’s delight to mark the beginning of a good summer. Prague’s cherry blossom season is towards the end of April and early May. These pink and red blooms open-up spring’s curtains, unfolding the many breath-taking landscapes and life’s profound decisions: one of them, a wedding with the joyous tones of a new beginning.
Moods of spring

It's summer. Our bike is ready. The river is still the same, the trail is also the same. But there are no teasing dandelions that carpet the path.

Set, again
We haven’t come face to face with any crocodiles. No bears, nor any ondatras.

The path is once again quiet on a busy summer’s day. Can we hunt? Maybe not – doesn’t go well with a trying-hard-to-be-a vegetarian. We have a head start. The rest are preparing their breakfast scramble. I smell that hot brew.

I am hungry
We take a rest here. We have our coffee and sandwiches too but are also careful not to disturb the chirpy birds.

Sandwich time

Autumn. Fall, as known in the Americas. It came to us so fast this year and stayed for a just a short while.

These beautiful shots of green, red, gold and the composed Vltava, from Stanislav’s friends, are reminders for us of the golden summer days we had this year. Look at those swans. These birds are so elegant. 

Autumn colours

Another swan and a couple of ducks. More memories. 😊


I stumbled upon the figurine below by chance mid this year. I was instantly reminded of all my biker friends who find pleasure in long-distance cycling such as the ones mentioned in this post. The “Winds of Change” post is indeed a perfect place for this picture today.

For you

At the end of our bike trip, we are rewarded with a mystical sunset.

Mystical sunset

Our ride back is a snowy one. Looks like we cycled for a long time. Our adventure in this region continues… stay with us. 

A classic, one of my favourites  ... snow on tracks

We are back, and it’s time for us to put our tired feet up and enjoy the autumn sunset. We time-travelled and cycled many miles today, and I am exhausted.

Enjoy the view- an evening in Prague

We will explore more frozen rivers and track down those mountain bears (Uma stop imagining!) and elegant swans this winter. In Frozen land, as Stanislav calls it.

For now, here is coffee to end the pleasant day. Stanislav, thank you so much for sharing these unforgettable hot and cold experiences of 2018. Sorry that your coffee got cold while you snapped these awesome photos for this post. I will get you a hot espresso when we meet. Scout's honour.

The changing seasons, changing winds. So much has passed by us in these quarters. Some good and we wish the rest could have been better. We all go through this, many of us silently. Remember, you are not alone, silence is a language that the winds hear clearly. These are same winds that will send messages in different forms to the rightful recipient at the right season.  Believe in those stars, reach for them. ReachingDelphi.💗💙💚💛💜💗

Iced-HOT, HOT Espresso. Special!!!

Traveler on location : Stanislav Kostka @ Feb 2018 - Oct 2018
Virtual traveller, me 😎

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